By Meghan Chua
More than 82,000 American service members are missing in action since the U.S. entered World War II in 1941. Of those, over 1,500 are from Wisconsin.
The question for the University of Wisconsin Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project, then, is this: When service members have gone missing around the globe, and when pieces of information about their life or disappearance are scattered, where do you start to bring someone home?
U.S. Army Captain Christopher Zaczyk, a second-year MBA student at the Wisconsin School of Business, starts with making sense of the information they have, and bringing it to a level where people can interact with it.
The UW Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project (UW MIA RIP) partners with the federal government to investigate cases of those who have gone missing during service and advance their recovery efforts. The team includes researchers, students, student-veterans, alumni, and other volunteers – all united by the desire to help find some of the scores of missing service members. Zaczyk was immediately drawn to the project when he found out about it.
“It was really incredible to see that the university was taking positive steps to bring people home,” he said.
The team faces a few challenges in its mission, Zaczyk said. For one, information about missing service members is scattered across sources. The team has connections with historians in Wisconsin communities who might know something, but even more information is housed outside Wisconsin. As an all-volunteer team, they don’t have much extra money to pay for travel to the national archives in St. Louis or Washington, D.C.
Then, once they do track down paperwork, there’s a lot of it. One file shows information about a body with no known name, while another file includes a name, someone’s personal effects, and other key characteristics, but has no body linked to the file. Using the analytical skills he has gained through his MBA program, Zaczyk can link those files together, giving the MIA project team a better chance of finding correlations.
More broadly, Zaczyk has compiled the massive amounts of paperwork involved into forms that are easier for the team and the public to understand.
One map shows each Wisconsin town that has a missing service member, and how many are missing from that town. “The results are pretty staggering,” Zaczyk said. “There are very few towns in this state that don’t bear the burden of sacrifice of having someone go missing.”
Another map shows where service members went missing. Zaczyk has also sorted MIAs by the conflict, branch of service, and even down to events that resulted in more missing service members than others. Breaking it down by these characteristics helps the team zero in on a case that could be their next, he said.
“Let’s look at this location, let’s look at this occurrence, let’s look at this event and see what’s feasible there so we can bring more people home faster and in a more efficient way,” Zaczyk said.
The MIA project began in 2014 when the UW–Madison Biotechnology Center helped identify the remains of Private First Class Lawrence S. Gordon, a Canadian who served in the U.S. Army and was killed in action in northern France during World War II. Charles Konsitzke, Associate Director of the UW Biotechnology Center and team lead for UW MIA RIP, founded the project after working on that first case. He has since led the team through two more successful recovery efforts – both for P-47 Thunderbolt fighter pilots who were shot down during World War II.
“Having exceptional graduate students like Chris has truly benefited the project because a large portion of this project the management of the project, the case, and the closure. Management is a crucial role,” Konsitzke said. “Our current database would not have been assembled if it wasn’t for Chris’s current studies.”
Handling recovery from start to finish
This past summer, a team of 21 volunteers with the MIA project participated in a recovery mission in Belgium, the efforts of which are ongoing. Zaczyk helped organize logistics, like getting excavators to the site, for the dig, and traveled to Belgium to participate as well.
After a dig, if the team finds remains, they turn them over to the country’s authorities who then work with the U.S. Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). DPAA runs DNA sequencing to confirm the identity of the remains and inform the family.
With other recovery missions, such as that of First Lieutenant Frank Fazekas in 2016 and 2017, the team might show a potential to discover remains and plan to return to the location for a second dig.
If the team is unable to recover the service member, Zaczyk said they still do what they can to give the person’s family a more complete picture of their service and the time they spent away from home.
“It’s not about the worst five minutes of the end of their life,” he said. “It’s about the complete picture that made the person who they are, and [sharing] that with a family who might not have that information.”
UW isn’t the only academic institution that works with DPAA to collaborate on recovering service members – a handful of others have similar agreements. But Zaczyk said UW is unique in having every expert required to complete a recovery and identification project from start to finish.
“For a single individual you have that historical research aspect, you have the genealogy aspect, you have the [DNA] sequencing aspect of it, you have the archaeology aspect of it,” he said. “Wisconsin can do that. All of it.”
Konsitzke said the diverse skillsets among team members helps infuse the project with out-of-the-box questions and approaches.
“This project needs that type of focus because of the unique events from each case. Every case has a unique pattern MIA event outcome,” he said.
For his part, Zaczyk credits the Wisconsin School of Business with giving him the skills that made him an effective operations manager for the MIA project.
“I know I would not have been as effective in the role that I was put into with the MIA Project had I not had the education that I had here at the Wisconsin MBA program,” he said.